You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

In this class we explored Islam and the many ways it is practiced around the world from a cultural studies approach. This means that rather than focusing on one sect or region of the world’s perspective as being representative of the entire religion, we studied many different practices and beliefs and looked at what they have in common, what they disagree on, and how such different perspectives come together under the term Islam. As a result, a significant take-away from the course has been that Islam, unlike how it is often depicted in the Western media, encapsulates an incredibly diverse range of devotional practices and beliefs and that any monolithic or homogenous presentation of it is only one of many perspectives. The confident statements often made about what Islam is and is not usually depict the religion inaccurately and exclusively, leaving out major regions of the world that consider themselves Muslim, and often do so with some form of bias (political, religious, or otherwise). In order to avoid bias when looking at distinct (and often conflicting) religious interpretations, the cultural studies approach does not view religion from a faith-based perspective, but rather sees it as a cultural phenomenon that develops in response to historical and social factors and is constantly changing and evolving even at the level of the individual who practices it. In this sense everyone practices their own distinct version of whatever religion they do (or do not) consider themselves a part of, and it is always important to realize whose perspective you are looking at when analyzing an opinion or belief.

While we looked at many different aspects of devotional life across the Muslim world, including various beliefs and practices, this course focused particularly on art as a form of religious expression and commentary. Art can be seen as an important means of expression for a number of reasons. Because art can often be interpreted in multiple different ways, its ambiguous message has historically allowed artists more freedom of speech than they may otherwise have been allowed in their time period, and so art can provide subtle insight into critiques of the norms of an era. Additionally, people are often able to connect with art through its aesthetic appeal in a very different way than they would with normal writing, and as a result art is often used to convey feelings and ideas that would otherwise be harder to grasp from a purely intellectual/analytical perspective. This is especially true for religious expression, which tends to focus on illuminating aspects of the world that are greater than what can normally be perceived on the surface. These are a few of the reasons why art was so heavily focused on in this course, and why the following responses to readings from the class are all pieces of artwork in various different media.

The course covered a vast range of topics, but my responses focused on a few particular themes that may require introduction. First of all, one common aspect of my artistic responses was that they all focused on quotes from our readings that depicted vivid imagery. I found that such quotes provided a lot of guidance for how to represent the message of the reading in a visual way (since I am not particularly talented in music or writing I tried to stay clear of non-visual media). While some of the metaphors used contain clear symbolism, others required more careful consideration and this careful analysis of imagery was something I particularly enjoyed and was able to do with this visual approach for my responses. This visual symbolism is itself something we’ve talked about in class, as it is said that the signs of God’s presence everywhere if you know how to look for them.

One visual theme that I bring up in my responses is Light Mysticism. Multiple verses of the Qur’an relate back to the idea that God first created light, and refer to God’s revelation and message, transmitted to humans via the Qur’an, as light that banishes the darkness that is ignorance of God. Muhammad, the central prophet in Islam who transmitted the Qur’an to mankind, is said to contain light (called the Nur Muhammad) within him, which according to some sects of Muslims gives him a greater connection to God and is passed on to his descendants who become Imams and have spiritual authority and special abilities such as intercessory powers (the ability to forgive people’s sins on behalf of God). This symbolism of light versus dark lends itself very well to different religious imagery, and is prevalent throughout much of Muslim literature, as well as in my artwork.

A connected theme that comes up is the veneration of Muhammad. Muhammad, being a prophet and the man that God chose to transmit the Qur’an, is often depicted as the epitome of a good Muslim. We even talked in class about the depiction of God himself as being madly in love with Muhammad. The hadith, a collection of stories concerning the customs and life of the prophet, supplements the Qur’an as a form of guidance for many Muslims around the world on issues of how to live life that are not explicitly talked about in the Qur’an. Some Muslims also believe that Muhammad has intercessory powers due to the Nur Muhammad, and so while God can at times be depicted as jealous or strict, Muhammad is usually depicted as a merciful and benevolent figure who strives to help mankind. As a result people have been known to compose poems and works of devotion dedicated to Muhammad in the hopes that he will stand up for them on Judgment Day to get them into heaven. However, this veneration of Muhammad is not a universal characteristic of Islam. Salafis/Wahhabis, for example, make up a sect of Muslims that views such veneration as conflicting with the monotheism of Islam. They do not allow veneration of Muhammad or the worship of other important Islamic figures, which is a common occurrence at various tomb shrines around the world where such figures are buried.

Regarding the different sects of Islam it is important to understand the division between the two major denominations of Muslims: Sunni and Shia. The division between these groups arose after Muhammad’s death when a decision had to be made about who would take over the role as leader of Muhammad’s followers. Sunni Muslims believed that the next leader should be decided by close companions of the prophet, whereas Shii Muslims felt that relatives of the prophet inherited some of the Nur Muhammad, and therefore also inherited Muhammad’s intercessory abilities and spiritual and political authority. As a result, Shii Muslims supported Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, as his successor, while Sunnis supported Abu Bakr. This caused a lot of violent conflict between the two factions that lasted for many years. At one point Ali was assassinated along with his eldest son Hasan. Shii Muslims gathered in support of his second son, Husayn, who posed a threat to the authority of Yazid, the Sunni Caliph (political leader) at the time. Husayn had an army sworn to protect him, but when Yazid was in pursuit they abandoned him. In the desert near Karbala (in Iraq) Yazid’s army surrounded Husayn and his family and waited, starving them out before Shimr, a leader of Yazid’s army, beheaded Husayn. Husayn has since been seen as a martyr in the Shia community and his suffering parallels that of many Shia groups who are often persecuted as minorities in Sunni-majority regions on the basis of their beliefs. Husayn’s shrine at Karbala, like the shrines of many other Shia Imams (the term for descendants of Muhammad who have spiritual and political authority according to Shia belief) is a popular destination for pilgrimages, even though the shrine itself has been destroyed. The story of Husayn’s martyrdom is retold through a play called the Taziyeh, which is performed every year in Iran (which is majority Shia). In the play the audience sits in a circle around the stage, mimicking Yazid’s army that surrounded Husayn at Karbala, and the Husayn dresses in green, the color of the prophet and his family, while Shimr dresses in red. The Taziyeh is a unique play in that, due to its religious foundation, it evokes very strong reactions from the audience, who are made to re-experience Husayn’s murder as if it were actually occurring, and audience-members often cry in anguish as the story plays out.

Another form of Islamic practice, whose participants can be Sunni or Shia, falls under the category of Sufi Mysticism, or Sufism. Sufi Muslims tend to believe that God is connected to every individual by a deep-seated love, and that experiencing God’s presence and love is the highest form of religious practice. Unlike other sects of Islam that tend to view such practices as heretical, some Sufis listen to music, dance, or condone intoxication with alcohol as a means of experiencing God’s love. While Sufis believe that it is possible to briefly experience aspects of God’s divine love, ultimately this world is often depicted as unreal and fleeting when compared to the Day of Alast (when all things were first created and in perfect union with God, before humans drifted away and became forgetful of their intimate connection to God). This connection is believed to be deep within everyone, but is obstructed by ones ego. Transcending the ego to realize ones connection with God is the central idea behind most Sufi practices.

Another theme discussed in this class concerned the contemporary reform movements in Islam. As Europe grew in global influence and Muslim regions of the world began to lose their prominence, there were many Muslims who were concerned that this was a sign that they were not practicing Islam correctly, and God was no longer pleased with them. As a result, many different movements arose, all attempting to regain God’s grace by reforming Islamic practices. The Salafi movement condemning all veneration besides that of God was one such reform movement. Others varied from altering Muslim practices for a more Western lifestyle to establishing Islam as the political ideology of a nation-state.

Other contemporary issues that were addressed included the place of women in society. Many reform movements saw the lack of religious education of women, who were responsible for raising children to be future Muslims, as a potential cause of God’s displeasure, so during this time religious education for women became much more popular. Some movements saw the westernization of the Muslim world as the problem, and encouraged, or even forced, women to dress more conservatively and wear veils which, although it also had precedent in parts of the Muslim world, was often a reactionary response to contrast the revealing clothing of the modern West. This covering up of women’s bodies is part of the custom of purdah, which is practiced in certain parts of the Muslim world. Purdah involves the separation of women from most men (besides those in their direct family), and can involve separating the house into certain areas (called the zenana) where only women are allowed and where women are often restricted from leaving. When women do leave or are in the presence of men, they often must wear some form of veil to cover their hair and/or entire face. While veils are often looked down upon in the West as restricting for women, many Muslim women choose to wear the veil as a sign of their religious identity, or as a means of protecting themselves from harassment.

While the themes mentioned above by no means encapsulate everything we’ve discussed in this course, they do provide much of the background information necessary to understand my artwork and responses to the various readings from this semester, so I hope you enjoy them!

– Caleb Irvine

Hudson River


“…in her mind she was experiencing things that were stronger and more meaningful than the things she could experience with the rest of us… ‘right now you’re the hardest person for her to see. You’re the one who upsets her most. Because you’re the most real, and you make her lose balance.’”

“One day she had walked out and not come back. Her clothes had been found on a rocky bluff overlooking the Hudson, neatly folded in a pile… It was a beautiful spot to commit suicide, perhaps to run out from between the snow-dusted conifers, to push off from the granite and sail through the air, gazing across the far bank of the mighty river, where a small house exhaled smoke from its chimney, before crashing into the icy current below… I thought of Erica removing her clothes and then, having shed her past, walking through the forest until she met a kindly woman who took her in and fed her.”

“One evening I was walking with Erica through Union Square and we saw a firefly. ‘Look!’ She said, amazed. ‘It’s trying to compete with the buildings… We watched as it crossed Fourteenth Street, headed south…’Do you think he made it?’ She asked me. ‘I have no idea,’ I said, ‘But I hope so.’”

– Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist


While reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist I had a hard time connecting it with what we’ve learned in this class. While it obviously touches on issues of how Muslims and people from the Middle East and South Asia are treated in post-September 11th America, very little was said about Islam. Because of this I spent some time looking into any characters or scenes that could be viewed as symbolic of Islamic beliefs or practices. I found that, whether it was intentional by the author or not, there were some parallels between Erica’s experience and some of the Sufi beliefs we talked about in class.

Erica’s love for Chris, despite his lack of physical presence in her life, is made out to be stronger and more meaningful to her than anything else in the world. In comparison, everything else isn’t real, although her (lesser) love for Changez is apparently the only thing that comes close. This directly parallels our discussions of Sufism and the ultimate goal of experiencing the love of God (which was also a part of other Muslim traditions besides just Sufism) as the most important endeavor in ones life. It also brings up the metaphor we discussed in which you must turn away from a beautiful bride, who is meant to represent the physical world, since she is fleeting and ultimately turns into an ugly old woman. This metaphor reflects the idea that attachment to this world is futile, as ultimately nothing physical is real and only love for God will remain in the end. The same quote also brings up the Sufi idea that you can come close to experiencing God’s love here on earth, as Erica seems to do through her love of Changez (but in the end, it’s only a distraction from her higher love for Chris).

The idea that Erica’s love and suicide are meant to symbolize love for God is further supported by the fact that a chunk of the story takes place in Pakistan, where Bulleh Shah, who claimed that the human soul is a woman yearning for the eternal beloved, was from. Also, the way in which Changez describes Erica’s removal of her clothes as a means of shedding her past reflects the Sufi idea that you need to shed your nafs (ego) in order to truly experience God. Changez’s hope that Erica survived and was took in and fed could be seen as an insistence that death is not the end, but that God takes care of his followers in heaven.

Because Erica’s death was not only a very dramatic part of the novel, but also seemed to have religious undertones relating to what we’ve talked about in this class, I decided to make a water color painting of the scene of her suicide. I painted the rock, the river, the trees (I couldn’t figure out how to do snow with watercolors, so I ignored that part), the house in the distance, and the neatly stacked pile of clothes. I also painted a firefly flying up above where Erica jumped to symbolize her desire to escape this world (potentially an escape into God’s love), just as the firefly who was crowded out by all the lights of the city needed to find an escape, as well as to symbolize Changez’s hope that she succeeded in doing so.

Woman and Lion


“’How can you trust those untrained men out of doors?’

‘We have no hand or voice in the management of our social affairs. In India man is lord and master. He has taken to himself all powers and privileges and shut up the women in the zenana.’

‘Why do you allow yourselves to be shut up?’

‘Because it cannot be helped as they are stronger than women.’

‘A lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race.’”

– Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Sultana’s Dream


Rokeya’s story Sultana’s Dream pushes back against the tradition of purdah, in which women in some Muslim (as well as some other) communities are restricted from interacting with men in a number of ways, such as by wearing the veil and by staying only in certain areas of the home (called the zenana). Rokeya describes a fictional world called Ladyland, where purdah laws are reversed and men must remain indoors while women are free to come and go as they please, without having to cover themselves with any form of veil. Rokeya makes Ladyland into almost a utopia: there is no crime, technology makes everything easier, and the streets are made up of moss and flowers. The main point of Rokeya’s story, and the quote above in particular, is that purdah restricts women in unfair ways, and women need to stand up for themselves if they want to have more rights in their communities.

I particularly enjoyed the parts of Sultana’s Dream that referred to men as beasts, because, to me at least, purdah laws seem to treat them as such. Purdah only seems to restrict the ways in which women act around men, rather than around other women, and the laws are justified on the basis of the effect women have on men. Coming from my perspective as an outsider to purdah laws, this seemed like an unrealistic depiction of men as powerless to their own impulses (much like how we view the behavior of wild animals) and also put unnecessary burden on women to change their behavior as a result of men’s wild tendencies. As a result, I liked how Rokeya drew a parallel between man and lion and argued that if men have such terrible impulses then they should be the ones whose freedoms are restricted.

I decided to illustrate this argument with a collage. I made the background a light blue, with a shining sun and green grass and flowers to reflect the utopic nature of Ladyland. The lion, as from the quote above, represents men and their wild tendencies and physical strength. Yet despite that daunting strength, in Ladyland women are able to contain the lions, so the lion in the collage is behind bars, which themselves are part of a house, reflecting how purdah laws that keep women from leaving the home acts as a kind of cage, restricting their freedom. I made the woman’s head uncovered, since in Ladyland there is no need for women to follow purdah laws. I also made her larger than the door to the house, because the women in Ladyland, having stood up for their rights (as Rokeya is encouraging in the story), cannot be contained. I also had the woman reaching her hand out to the lion, since in reality Rokeya was not actually advocating for a reversal of purdah laws, but rather for a more equal society in which both men and women share the same rights.



“There are nations in Life’s garden that

have gathered in their fruit.

Others shared not in the harvest, and

are swept by autumn’s gales;

Multitudes of trees there stand, some

green, some withered to the root,

Myriads as yet lie hidden in the womb

that never fails;

After centuries of tending soars Islam,

a mighty tree,

Fruitful yet, a splendid symbol of

immense vitality

Thou a Muslim art, and Destiny thy

edict must obey,

Be thou faithful to Muhammad, and

We yield Ourself to thee;

Not this world alone—the Tablet and

the Pen thy prize shall be.”

– Iqbal, Jawab-i-shikwa


Iqbal’s poems Shikwa and Jawab-i-shikwa (Complaint and Answer) grapple with issues concerning Islam in the early twentieth century and the idea that the fall in global influence and power of Islamic regions of the world is a sign that Muslims have somehow fallen from God’s grace. In Shikwa Iqbal writes from the point of view of a modern-day Muslim who questions why God does not reward him and his people as he did their ancestors, claiming that they have done so much in his name over the years.

In Jawab-i-shikwa, Iqbal writes God’s response to this complaint. God claims to be pleased with the historical practice of Islam in all the ways described in shikwa, and expresses this through many metaphors such as the one above, in which Islam is depicted as an old and majestic tree among smaller, less impressive plants. However, God also argues that modern-day Muslims do not practice Islam as devoutly as their ancestors, and therefore do not merit the same rewards. At the end of the poem, God encourages Muslims to remain faithful and assures them that even if their devotion does not yield rewards in this life, there are greater rewards that they will earn, namely the “Tablet and the Pen.” This is a reference to the Umm al-kitab (mother of the book), which is the heavenly prototype of all sacred scriptures. By this phrase Iqbal is saying that faith does not necessarily result in immediate or tangible rewards, but will merit greater rewards in heaven after death.

The metaphor of Islam as a great tree stood out to me, so I decided to take a picture of a tree reaching up into the sky. On the tree I placed a pen and tablet (the tablet I made out of cardboard that I painted and then bound together with the stems of a dead vine) to symbolize that the ultimate reward for Muslims—for which they contribute their faith as part of the tree of Islam—lies in heaven.


“To-day shall the rose be turned out of its delightful spot by the tyranny of the thistle. Dear sister, if any dust happen to settle on the rosy cheeks of my lovely daughter Sukainah, be pleased to wash it away most tenderly with the rose-water of thy tears.”

– Imam Husain in The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husain


In The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husain, Husain says this to his sister who has already begun to mourn his coming death. This line metaphorically addresses Husain’s future martyrdom by drawing on the common symbolism of the rose to represent the Prophet and his family, since the rose is seen as the perfect flower (much like Muhammad is seen as the perfect human). The rose is even said to have been created out of Muhammad’s sweat.

I painted a picture of this metaphor (and along the way discovered how difficult painting with watercolors is).  I drew a red thistle at the top, whose prickly nature parallels the animosity of Husain’s enemies (particularly his murderer, Shimr). It is high up on the page to reflect Shimr’s military success, while the rose (the symbol for Husain) is beneath it. While I chose to make the rose red in order to make it more recognizable, I decided to draw the rays coming out of it in green and the rays from the thistle as red. These mirror the colors in Ta’ziyah traditionally associated with Shimr (red) and the Family of the Prophet (green). The rose is in a tear drop, both to visually represent the rose-water used to brush away the brown clouds of dust on Sukainah’s cheeks, but also to represent the tears of the Shii Muslims who mourn Husain’s death at Karbala every year during the month of Muharram.

While the thistle may occupy the “delightful spot” in this picture, stories like Husain’s which depict martyrdom and failure (in this life, at least) are used by Shii Muslims to help them persevere through their historical persecution by Sunni Muslims for their “heretical beliefs.” While the rose may be turned out of its spot, Shii Muslims are assured that their continued faith in their Imam and their form of Islam will ensure that their suffering on earth will not be for nothing.

Shades of Light


“Know first that never did that sacred body

Cast shadow on earth, not e’en at noonday;

From head to foot his frame was light in essence,

And sure it is that light has not a shadow.

Above that noble head there hung unfailing,

A cloudy fragment sent from heav’n to shield him;

Its shadow cooled the burning heats of summer,

And where he moved the cloud to him was faithful.”

– The Mevlidi Sherif


This excerpt from the Mevlidi Sherif produces a powerful image that I wanted to depict in a drawing. The idea that the Nur Muhammad could physically manifest itself in the literal lack of a shadow stood out to me, as did the conflicting connotations of shade in this passage. While the light of Muhammad, a sacred and divine phenomenon, is seen as banishing shadows, God’s love for the prophet is simultaneously expressed through shade as a protection from the light of the sun. This positive connotation for shade is also seen in phrases like “in the shade of Allah,” which refer to having God’s blessing supporting your actions.

In line with the central issue of shade and shadows in this passage, I made shadows prevalent in the picture. The drawing is meant to take place in the desert at sunset, when the sun casts long shadows over all things. The figure is meant to be Muhammad while on one of his trips as a merchant, and the green tent is supposed to support this since green is the color of the Family of the Prophet. The issues in some cultures with the figural representation of the Prophet, along with the fact that the Nur Muhammad is depicted in this passage very literally as light, compelled me to leave the details and color out of Muhammad himself. I used his outline to show his general figure, but kept him white and empty to show that he is special; he is made up of pure light. The single cloud hanging in the sky provides shade from the harsh sun in the area where Muhammad stands, but since he is made of light, shade never actually covers his figure and he never casts a shadow.


“My desire is to visit your tomb—fulfill it if you desire:

For me it is most difficult [to accomplish], for you most easy.

None can go astray while following you,

Because those footsteps are the lamps on the road to faith.”

– Khalil, Armaghan-I na’t


This section of a na’t from In Praise of Muhammad: Sindhi and Urdu Poems inspired me to make a collage. The collage uses a black background to incorporate the light mysticism referenced in the last line, the black representing the human tendency to be forgetful of God, contrasted against the white of the road created by Muhammad’s footsteps and of the mosque in the center. The white road represents the divine path of Islam (specifically the Sirat al-Mustaqim, or Straight Path) that is meant to provide guidance in an otherwise chaotic world. The footsteps themselves were cut out from a picture of a sunrise to reflect how the life and sunnah of the prophet, as recounted in the hadith, serve to illuminate the Sirat al-Mustaqim for many Muslims.

Because the na’t addresses Muhammad and specifically mentions the desire to visit his tomb, I put the Mosque of the Prophet (Al-Masjid al-Nabawi, where his tomb is located) at the end of the path. Many Muslims from around the world go on pilgrimages to the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina to express their devotion to him, and since this na’t is part of a long tradition of Prophet-veneration, it seemed fitting that visiting Al-Masjid al-Nabawi would be on the road of faith. It is important to note that not all Muslim sects believe in such prophet-veneration. Wahhabi Muslims (who often go by Muwahhidun, meaning “monotheists”) oppose the veneration of any figure besides God himself, and thus do not practice traditions centered around Muhammad or follow guidance from the Hadith, and some have exerted their political influence in Saudi Arabia to restrict other Muslims from visiting shrines of important figures from Islamic history that serve as shrines for Muslims of other sects of Islam.

However, while Wahhabi Muslims would not see the Mosque of the Prophet as an appropriate symbol for the Sirat al-Mustaqim, prophet veneration is a very common theme in most other sects of Islam around the world, and since this poem is part of that tradition, I decided to put Al-Masjid al-Nabawi in there anyways. Additionally, since many such Muslims think of Muhammad as the prefect human, the mosque also represents the Prophet’s sunnah and how following his example to become an ideal Muslim is the ultimate goal for many on the path of faith.

The cracks between the black sections are random and break up the darkness to give it a chaotic appearance in comparison to the solid white path that creates a sense of order. However, the mosque itself is also made up of different fragments and shades, and the footsteps vary in color as well. This reflects how, despite its homogeneous depiction in Western media, the term Islam encompasses a collection of culturally unique and contrasting traditions and beliefs from around the world.